Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Coastal region and small island papers 10
Chapter 2

Provincial government reforms and the plight of the Motu Koitabu people

by Eric L. Kwa


The Motu Koitabu are an indigenous group of people living in and around the city of Port Moresby and the National Capital District (NCD). They are the traditional owners of the land upon which Port Moresby is situated. The coastal dwellers of this group of people are called the Motu while their cousins, who dwell inland, are called the Koitabu. Motu Koitabu villages are spread throughout the city and the outskirts of Port Moresby. There are about 30,000 Motu Koitabu people living in the NCD.

Hanuabada village with Port Moresby in the 

In June 1995, parliament passed the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution which repealed the old provincial government system and ushered in a new one. This was followed by the enactment of the Organic Law on Provincial Government and Local-Level Government (New Organic Law), which repealed and replaced the Organic Law on Provincial Governments that had been in place since 1976.

It is now a little over four years since the introduction of the reform of the provincial government system. The reformed system is therefore still in its infancy. There have been numerous complaints that the reform is not working in many parts of the country. However, as with all new initiatives, the reform system is still being tried and tested to ascertain its full impact on the lives and governance of the people.

This summit is therefore both timely and good. It is timely because the system is still in its infancy. The Motu Koitabu, whose social, political and economic boundaries have been overtaken by the NCD, need to test and find the means in the New Organic Law to gain recognition and respect under the reform system. The summit is good because it provides a forum whereby the Motu Koitabu people can speak, hear and encourage each other in finding ways under the reformed provincial system to access the resources available and gain greater political, social and economic benefits.

State policy on participation and development

Parliament House, PNG. Mosaic
depicting cultural heritage and

The participation of the people in the development programmes of their country is crucial. A country managed by elites without any meaningful participation by the people can result in failure and opposition by the people. The fathers of the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Constitution were very much aware of this reality. They said:

‘…the kind of society which we believe our people want to build is one which is fundamentally based on the right of each one of our citizens, whether he or she lives in a village, a town, or a city, to fully develop himself or herself as a whole person.’

The Constitutional Planning Committee (CPC) wanted to see that government policies on politics, administration and the economy were geared towards encouraging and promoting equal participation by the citizens of PNG. The preamble of the constitution entrenches the principles of equality and participation. In order to allow the people to actively and effectively participate in the decision-making process, a two-tier system of government was established with the state government and the provincial government. The 1977 Organic Law on Provincial Governments provided for administrative and financial powers to the provincial governments. The major complaint leading to the overhaul of the provincial system in 1995 was its alleged high cost.

New Organic Law on provincial government and local-level government (New Organic Law)

The New Organic Law is quite impressive on paper. Closer examination, however, reveals a different scenario. It is a complex and difficult piece of legislation; it contains a number of difficult formulae for calculating funds. These formulae may be simple to the architects of this law, but to many ordinary people, and especially the elected leaders of the local and provincial governments, they are difficult to understand. The law also provides for a number of activities for local-level governments (LLG), which are quite ambitious at this point in time. For instance, the New Organic Law envisages that at the local-level, public servants would be easily encouraged to return willingly to the rural areas to live and work. However, in the majority of rural areas the existing accommodation and infrastructure are inferior and fail to entice the public servants to relocate to these areas.

One of the primary limitations of the New Organic Law is that it assumes that the people who will implement the law are adequately trained and experienced. This assumption is short-sighted as the majority of these people are either new to the job or have limited knowledge about the intricate provisions and requirements of the New Organic Law.

Another stumbling block of the law is that many of its provisions have been inoperative for almost four years because they require an act of parliament to bring them into force.

These and other limitations of the New Organic Law have curtailed the operations of the provincial and local-level governments. When some of these issues are properly addressed by the relevant authorities the new system may truly achieve some of the dreams that many people have been led to believe.

Case for the Motu Koitabu

The political, social and economic interests of the Motu Koitabu are administered by the Motu Koitabu Council. This political unit comes under the administration of the National Capital District Commission (NCDC). However, the Motu Koitabu membership in the commission has gradually declined over the years (this is further discussed in Chapter 4). The commission comprises four constituencies: the NCDC regional and three open electorates. Politically, four members of parliament represent the whole population of about 250,000 people in the NCD. These four members of parliament also represent the 30,000 Motu Koitabu.

In terms of political representation, the Motu Koitabu are under-represented at the provincial and national government levels and have limited participation in the decision-making processes at the local-level. Within the spirit of the new reforms, the Motu Koitabu would have to be fully satisfied should a new LLG be established (see also Chapter 4, the section dealing with ‘Motu Koitabu and the Reforms of 1995’). The Motu Koitabu, like most of the other indigenous people in cities and towns in other parts of PNG, had limited rights to participate in development in their own area. There is no doubt that the New Organic Law is geared towards the rural people of PNG and not the people in urban areas.

The Motu Koitabu cannot participate actively and effectively in the social and economic development of their locality because existing mechanisms do not provide them with this opportunity. It may be argued that the Motu Koitabu are already participating through the auspices of the Motu Koitabu Council. This argument is flawed because the powers and functions of the council are severely restricted by the NCDC, which must approve all the council’s activities.

Unlike the rural LLGs established under the New Organic Law, which are guaranteed funding and have wide ranging powers, the Motu Koitabu, under the current arrangements, are powerless.

Almost all the Motu Koitabu live in the NCD and, as such, are technically beneficiaries of all forms of development that take place within the district. It has been argued that because the Motu Koitabu are residents of the NCD, they should not be treated differently from all the other district residents. This argument is fundamentally flawed on two fronts.

First, a great many of the city residents from other parts of the country are in the NCD temporarily. While in the district, their home areas are being developed according to the respective district and provincial development plans. When these residents return to their villages they will benefit from these development initiatives which have been formulated according to the specifications of the local community. Comparison of these rural development initiatives with those of the NCD shows that the specific needs of the Motu Koitabu are subsumed by the greater needs of the wider populace of the district.

Second, the Motu Koitabu have to compete with the other residents of the NCD to access goods and services in Port Moresby. For instance, in a rural village, an aid post may be built for that village alone. In the NCD, a similar arrangement cannot be possible for the people of, say, Tatana village because they have access to the Port Moresby General Hospital and are, therefore, considered not to be in need of an aid post.

A walk through the Motu Koitabu villages reveals that many of them lack adequate water supply, basic health services, sanitation and proper infrastructure. Many of the young people of these villages are disillusioned and lost because they are at a disadvantage when they have to compete with the rest of PNG for jobs in the city. Motu Koitabu women and girls are being harassed when they walk outside their own village boundaries. Many of the Motu Koitabu are frustrated at the lack of advancement for their people.

Given this scenario it is obvious that the Motu Koitabu have been politically, socially and economically marginalized over the years.

Participation of the Motu Koitabu in the development of the National Capital District 

Houses built on stilts at Tatana village

A simple survey of Motu Koitabu villages in the NCD reveals that the majority of the people do not know about the development activities that are taking place around them in the city. For instance, many of the people at Baruni do not know about the potentially detrimental effects of the Kanudi Power Plant on their environment and their health.

The principles of participation enshrined in the second goal of the constitution are intricately connected to Sections 51 and 46 of the constitution. These two constitutional provisions allow people to have access to official documents, to express their views on the subject matter and to actively and meaningfully participate in development projects within their locality.

Applying these principles to the Motu Koitabu people, it is apparent that they have not and cannot meaningfully participate in the following development projects:

Their active and full participation in these projects is limited in a number of ways. There should have been more consultation, including the provision of access to the development plans. Hence the landowners would be fully aware of the projects and be in a position to agree with at least part of them.

The national government is fully supportive of these projects and is being kept up to date on their current progress. Nevertheless, developers would benefit by listening to the landowners, bearing in mind a tacit traditional custom that the landowners’ views must be entertained by the developer for the sake of project continuation. The experiences of other development projects throughout the country hold testimony to this fact. The perception held bycurrent developers in the Port Moresby area is dangerous because it sets a bad precedent in destroying the strong customary bonds that hold the community together. This gives birth to frustration and community infighting, which usually ends up with the breakdown of the community and even the destruction of property and lives.

It is difficult for the Motu Koitabu to turn to the New Organic Law because it does not cater to their specific needs. Section 115 of this law makes it mandatory for the proponents of development projects to consult the landowners before the project can proceed. Their LLG is also mandated to participate in the proposed development projects. The problem is serious because at the time of writing it is not clear whether the Motu Koitabu are entitled to economic grants under Section 97 of the New Organic Law.

Health and environmental concerns of the Motu Koitabu

The number of development projects completed and those proposed has and will have a profound effect on the lives of the people of the NCD, in particular the Motu Koitabu, because this is their land and they will continue to live in the district for the rest of their lives.

The large development projects that have been completed in the NCD and those that are on the drawing board will have major environmental and social implications. Development projects such as the Marina development project, the Motukea dry dock project, the Port Moresby Oil Refinery at Napa Napa, and the Port Moresby port relocation project (currently under discussion) will adversely affect the local environment and the livelihood of the Motu Koitabu people in the coastal areas. The work on the Poreporena Freeway, the burning (now terminated) at the Baruni Dump and the emission of gases from the Kanudi Power Plant have and/or will cause environmental and health problems for the Motu Koitabu villages within the vicinity of these projects.

All of these high profile projects are required to comply with the Environmental Planning Act, the Environmental Contaminants Act and the Public Health and Safety Act. The Environmental Planning Act requires a developer to complete and publish for public comment an environmental plan of the proposed project. The act sets out the procedure for participation by all the relevant parties and interested individuals and corporations. My own interviews with some of the Motu Koitabu reveal that they have been neither consulted nor have they seen an environmental plan for these projects. A similar mechanism is available under the Environmental Contaminants Act and, here too, these projects need to comply with the conditions of the act.

It is unknown whether proper health surveys or investigations have been done to determine the health status of the Motu Koitabu before and after the launching of the above projects. It is incumbent on the appropriate government institutions to monitor any health effects.

Strategies for action

A number of strategies are proposed for consideration and possible action by the Motu Koitabu. These are:

  1. Request the government to undertake a comprehensive review of major existing and ongoing projects and identify ways for meaningful participation by the Motu Koitabu. This would require making all relevant documents pertaining to these projects available to the Motu Koitabu as a corporate body. This is crucial because without these documents the Motu Koitabu cannot adequately negotiate with the government and the developer. This position should be pursued strongly especially in projects where, from their inception, the Motu Koitabu have not been involved as a corporate body. Renegotiation or suspension of these agreements would be legally impossible; however, a review could identify ways in which benefits and spin-offs could benefit the Motu Koitabu people.

    Developers argue that the principal landowners have been consulted and, therefore, there is no need to consult the whole community. This argument is shallow, taking into consideration the wider impact of these projects on the local environment, and the safety and health of the Motu Koitabu. In this respect, it is advisable that the possible environmental, social and health problems that may arise as a result of the Marina development, the Motukea project and the relocation of the port facilities, be communicated to the Motu Koitabu. Possible remedies to rectify these problems can then be proposed to the people, to avoid suspicion and doubt.

  2. Establish a Motu Koitabu local-level government. This may be possible under Sections 26 and 27 of the New Organic Law. It may be argued that the provisions of the New Organic Law relating to provincial governments apply to the NCD and not the LLG system. However, a closer examination of Section 4 shows that the New Organic Law does not prohibit the establishment of LLGs in the district. When Sections 26, 27 and 4 are read together, there is a clear path to the establishment of this level of government in the district, specifically for the Motu Koitabu. Although the Motu Koitabu are spread throughout the district, they are indeed entitled to a single LLG under Section 27(1A) of the New Organic Law. (The powers of the existing Motu Koitabu Council are restricted by the NCDC which must approve all the council’s activities).


It is apparent that the Motu Koitabu need an LLG of their own, to manage and run the affairs of the Motu Koitabu in the NCD. It has also been suggested that the Motu Koitabu need a development authority. Such a structure, however, is very loose and lacks substantive powers and resources. An LLG on the other hand is guaranteed under the New Organic Law and its powers and functions are clearly stated in the law. It is also entitled to secured funding and can determine development plans best suited to its own people.

A number of approaches can be utilized in this process. First, the Motu Koitabu could request an amendment to enable the New Organic Law to apply to the NCD specifically for the Motu Koitabu people. Second, the Organic Law could be assessed to determine whether it discriminates against the Motu Koitabu, and appropriate follow-up action taken. Third, the NCDC Act could be reviewed to ascertain whether it properly serves the needs of the Motu Koitabu Council.

The strategies set out above are only suggestions and need to be further developed. Whichever strategy is adopted, the relevant people and state institutions at the political level will have to be approached for support. It is clear that the current political and legal arrangements are not favourable to this group of people. The law and the general perception need to be challenged and changed to enable the Motu Koitabu to actively and meaningfully participate in the development of their home area, the NCD.


Constitutional Planning Committee, Final Report of the Constitutional Planning Committee. Part 1, Port Moresby, Government Printer, 1974.

DeVere, R., Colquhoun-Kerr, D. and Kaburise, J., (eds.), Essays on the Constitution of Papua New Guinea. Port Moresby, Government Printing Office, 1985.

Ghai, Y. P., and Regan, A. J., Law, Politics and Administration of Decentralisation. Monograph 30, Port Moresby, National Research Institute, 1992.


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